I recently met Greeley Miklashek, MD, psychiatrist and author of Stress R Us. What you'll find below is his essay, which correlates population density to human stress, mental health and infertility. I'm including this guest post on my blog because I think it is interesting and invites conversation. The views in this post belong to Miklashek. They are not my own. You can let me know what you think by leaving a comment below.
Stress R Us
By Greeley Miklashek, MD
Stuart Hurlbert, president of SEPS (Scientists and Environmentalists for Population Stabilization), has asked me to write a 1,500 word essay introducing my book by the above title.
Everyone I talk to about the book on stress I’m writing immediately identifies with the title. We all feel “stressed”, at least some of the time, and the majority of us modern urban Americans live constantly stressful lives. But what do we actually mean by the word “stress” and why do we experience it so often in modern society?
I am a retired neuropsychiatrist and discovered during my 40 year medical practice that my patients were experiencing a common malady, no matter what their immediate symptoms were. They nearly all had elevated blood cortisol levels first thing in the morning and throughout their day, as well as signs and symptoms of sympathetic nervous system over-activity, which often kept them up at night. However, many of my patients, also, experienced a dangerous decline in their cortisol levels, after a long period of high stress living, which pretty much characterizes most of our busy modern lifestyles, including physicians.
I began to understand what was really going on with my patients, and myself, a decade ago, when I discovered James Wilson’s amazing little book Adrenal Fatigue. In his book, Dr. Wilson described a condition in which the overworked adrenal glands began to cease functioning and lose their ability to produce immuno-suppressing cortisol, as well as 17 other steroid hormones produced by the adrenal cortex. This condition, thus, causes the worsening or onset of the myriad autoimmune diseases we are plagued with today. Thus, these autoimmune diseases are treated with supplemental anti-inflammatory steroid preparations, necessary due to the failure of our own adrenal glands to produce our natural anti-inflammatory steroid: cortisol. Following the simple nutritional and lifestyle changing instructions in Dr. Wilson’s little book, necessary to rebuild our otherwise depleted adrenal glands, often led to a complete resolution of the manifestations of these autoimmune diseases.
However, as my patients and I continued to follow this cortisol story, we soon discovered the prolonged high stress states that inevitably preceded the adrenal fatigue. The resultant elevated blood cortisol levels have numerous negative health consequences: suppressed immune function, unnecessary breakdown of the protein architecture of bone and solid organs, elevated blood sugar levels, insulin resistance, increased risk of infectious diseases, weight gain, atherosclerosis, cancer, peptic ulcers, and many others. One of cortisol’s primary functions is the liberation of sugar and fat energy stores, which, when unnecessary for its original purposes, escaping danger and wound healing, results in large part as our obesity and type 2 diabetes epidemics as well as coronary artery disease and heart attack. Thus, we became ever more focused on stress management, as fundamental to all aspects of healthy living.
Are we too altruistic for our own good?
Were it not for such often heroic medical interventions, as we attempted to provide in our practice, all of us would have been killed off by a combination of the disease promoting functions of our chronically over-active stress responses (COASTER), responding to triggers comprising population density stress, and whatever contagion was current in the moment. The same may be said for our advanced water purification and waste management systems. We are, after all, an extremely altruistic species, as a direct biological result of our 99.9% genetic similarity, shared by only 19 known species alive today, 17 of which are social insects.
A Eureka moment…
OK, for our individual human health, but, now, what about the health of the entire ecosystem and all the other living things in it? As I proceeded with writing a draft of Stress R Us, I had to face the realization that all the top ten killers of humans were identical to the fatal illnesses suffered by crowded mammals of many other species. And then, I had a “eureka” moment.
What if our chronically overactive stress responses (acronym COASTER) were actually a population regulation mechanism? I had arrived at this hypothesis independently but soon read papers and books by psychologists, ecologists, and population researchers who had suggested essentially this numerous times in the 20th century. This early work is noted and summarized at length in Stress R Us, but, sadly, much of it has otherwise been overlooked by modern scientists and may soon be lost in time. Hopefully, it will be resurrected in my work.
The obvious question, although rarely asked, is why we should have a built-in population regulation mechanism. In my ever broader research reading I came upon the ecological concept of “carrying capacity”, and, particularly, the iconic work of William Catton, first published in 1980, and entitled OVERSHOOT, The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change. However, I had been working on an archaeology project for 5 years before that and learned that our hunter-gatherer ancestors living before the “agricultural revolution” had maintained a fairly steady world-wide population of about 6 million humans. Wait a minute! Today we are approaching 7.4 billion! So, then, are we not 1233 times overpopulated when compared to those increasingly well understood predecessor populations? Ouch! Mr. Catton’s well done analysis, the result of his life’s work, demonstrated that we are currently way over-populated, when compared with the earth’s carrying capacity for us. What, then, should a sustainable population of humans on earth be?
At this point on my personal voyage of discovery, I was introduced to the prescient work of Ken Smail, PhD, emeritus Professor of Anthropology at Kenyon College in central Ohio, where I grew-up. Prof. Smail has estimated that the earth’s carrying capacity for humans is about 2 billion, although I’m afraid that he may be questioning that number after our nearly 2 hr. phone conversation this past year! The fact is, we have no idea how many humans today’s depleted earth can feed and otherwise sustainably support in the future, God forbid in an oil-less future. What we do know, or should at this juncture, is that our oil reserves, and, thus, our petrochemical based industrial agriculture, will not last much beyond another 100 years, and that we’d better begin planning for that inevitability now.
But wait just a minute, you might be saying! What about current climatic deterioration thought to be generated primarily by humans burning fossil fuels, releasing CO2 into the atmosphere and oceans? And not to mention the fact nobody seems to notice: CO2 is one carbon atom but, also, two oxygen atoms. We’re depleting the O2 in the very air we’ve become accustomed to breathing! We’re depleting the O2 in the oceans and the fish are suffocating. Get the picture. We clearly need to “leave it in the ground” now, if we wish to continue eating and breathing. God help our off-spring and the depleted earth they are certain to inherit!
“Mouse Utopia” and “the kill-switch”…
The urgency of the situation is even more clear when we review animal crowding research from the 1950’s and 60’s, particularly the “Mouse Utopia” studies by one of my all-time scientific heroes, John B. Calhoun. I refer the interested reader to a paper available online entitled “Death Squared: The Explosive Growth and Demise of a Mouse Population”, published in 1973. I have taken the liberty of attaching a graph of the population growth, demise, and death of the mouse colony studied by the good doctor, and a graph of a population projection for humanity. When we fit the two graphs on top of eachother, we can very roughly predict the corresponding apical “Last Born” date for human populations at 2125AD, and at a world-wide population of 10.5 billions. I have termed this phenomenon: “the kill-switch”.
Expanding human infertility…
What I know, as a physician, is that human infertility is ever more prevalent in our crowded society today, especially in densely populated urban centers, and that the stress hormones, CRH and cortisol, are known to be responsible in most cases, as well as behavioral disruptions in crowded populations. Our current human populations, particularly in densely populated urban centers, appear to be on a similar trajectory to that of Calhoun’s mice. We may be headed for a total collapse of crowded urban human populations on earth.
So, what can we do?
So, what can we do about the rising human population on earth, currently numbering 215,000 per day? Simple, we must start reducing our numbers, relieving our resource extraction pressures on earth, and allowing our fellow species to survive our onslaught. The alternative may well be the total extinction of mankind, if the animal models are any guide. I am now certain that it is the effects of this process that I observed in my 25,000 patients’ maladies, all of which are becoming more prevalent day by day.
How can we possibly undertake such a task? Very simply, actually. We need to limit our reproduction to one-child per couple on average. If we will only make this effort, we will be able to reduce our world-wide population back to 1950 levels of 2.5 billion by 2,100—just in the nick of time! If we choose not to face this problem, with all its negative consequences for us as individuals and the planet as a whole, only disaster, and, perhaps, the kill-switch awaits. It’s our choice.